In a major decision acknowledging the history of racial injustice in jury selection, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled on Friday that people on death row can still challenge racial discrimination in their death sentences under the Racial Justice Act despite lawmakers’ attempt to block review of racial bias claims by repealing the law.
Racial bias in the administration of the death penalty has been longstanding problem. Racial disparities in sentencing decisions, jury selection, and prosecutorial discretion have been confirmed in study after study. In most states, the race of the victim is the greatest predictor of who gets capital punishment.
Passed in 2009, the Racial Justice Act requires courts to vacate a death sentence where race was a factor in the imposition of the death penalty. North Carolina was the first state to pass legislation aimed at remedying racially discriminatory practices in death penalty trials, including racial bias in jury selection.
After the law’s passage in 2009, a study of capital trials found that prosecutors removed qualified Black jurors at more than twice the rate of white jurors. Thus, nearly half of North Carolina’s death row prisoners were tried by all-white juries or juries with only one person of color.
The RJA also allowed defendants to unearth handouts from training seminars for prosecutors with lists of “race-neutral” excuses to explain away strikes of Black jurors and prosecutors’ handwritten notes. African Americans who were struck had notations like “blk wino,” while a prosecutor wanted to keep a white juror because she would “bring her own rope.”
After four people, including Marcus Robinson, won relief from a trial court and were resentenced to life without parole, North Carolina’s Republican-led state legislature in June 2013 repealed the RJA and voided all challenges that had been filed under the law. Nearly everyone under sentence of death in North Carolina—more than 130 people—had filed a motion under the RJA.
The state supreme court on Friday rejected this retroactive repeal as unconstitutional. The RJA established a right to challenge a sentence of death on the grounds that it was obtained in a proceeding tainted by racial discrimination, and, if successful, to receive a sentence of life without parole, the court reasoned. “Repealing the RJA took away that right, and the repeal cannot be applied retroactively consistent with this state’s constitutional prohibition on ex post facto laws.”
The decision affirms that “the harm from racial discrimination in criminal cases is not limited to an individual defendant, but rather it undermines the integrity of our judicial system and extends to society as a whole.”
It comes just days after Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, the first Black woman to serve as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, acknowledged in response to protests against police violence that North Carolina’s courts have helped perpetuate racial disparities. “We must come together to firmly and loudly commit to the declaration that all people are created equal, and we must do more than just speak that truth,” she said. “We must live it every day in our courtrooms.”
“In light of decades, if not centuries, of mistreatment and brutalization of Black citizens at the hands of America’s criminal system, today’s decision to take the death penalty off the table when there is evidence of racial bias is just one small but important step toward achieving the broad-based reform needed in North Carolina, and across the country,” Henderson Hill, a prominent ACLU attorney who represents RJA defendants, said in a statement. “It’s something to celebrate, but also a reminder that we must keep working for justice.”
Now, as a result of Friday’s ruling, any capital defendant who filed a motion for appropriate relief under the original RJA will have the opportunity to present evidence showing that systemic racial bias tainted their sentences.